Friends travel from Missouri to visit local artist

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 3, 2011

DAVIDSON — It was one of those moments when Sharon Forthofer’s mind wasn’t quite grasping what her eyes were taking in.
But there they were — four of her best friends from Sikeston, Mo. — walking toward her in this little art gallery half a country away in North Carolina.
Forthofer’s first thoughts and words were pretty simple, “No,” “No” and, finally, “Yes.” She turned pale, as though seeing ghosts, before she began hugging everyone, and all the old buddies cried and grabbed for tissues.
In a corner, Sharon’s husband, Jerry, clicked his camera to document the reunion, which he secretly helped to arrange.
“It’s such a beautiful day, we thought we’d just take a ride,” Marilyn Schwaninger told Sharon as the greetings exploded.
The four women from Missouri — Schwaninger, Carol Gleason, Juliana Comer and Lisa Pobst — traveled last Friday from Sikeston to Asheville, where they stayed overnight. They then made the 21/2-hour trip to Davidson Saturday and surprised Forthofer during an afternoon reception kicking off her one-woman art show at the Merrill-Jennings Gallery.
Forthofer, who lives in Rockwell and has a studio in Salisbury’s Railwalk arts district, has developed greatly as an artist over the past dozen years, since retiring as a first-grade teacher.
She and Jerry moved from northern Indiana to Sikeston, Mo., in 1998, and it was there she began her art career and forged strong friendships with a group of women, who met monthly to celebrate birthdays.
Jerry Forthofer says those gatherings often became all-day affairs, with the food, drink, story-telling and shopping they entailed.
“These ladies are dear to Sharon,” Jerry says. “Leaving this group was particularly hard on her when we moved from Sikeston for another of my jobs.”
Jerry’s work as a general manager in the mobile home industry took him and Sharon to Texas about six years ago and eventually to Albemarle, where he would retire.
The couple decided to stay in this part of North Carolina because it was close to son, Matt, who lives near Davidson and is a simulation engineer for NASCAR’s Red Bull team, and daughter, Gwen, whose family lives in Kingsport, Tenn.
Jerry and Sharon also have three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Through emails, cards, telephone calls and Facebook, Sharon kept in touch with her Sikeston friends, including Annie Schuchart, who planned to make the N.C. trip but had a last-minute family obligation.
Carol Gleason once surprised Sharon in Texas, “and I was crying like this,” Sharon said, wiping her eyes. But for the most part, the women hadn’t seen each other in five or six years.
Comer said the trip serves as a 10th anniversary celebration of those monthly birthday get-togethers.
The women have followed Sharon’s artistic development on her website, and the friends were quite impressed with Forthofer’s work in person, as they moved from room to room Saturday.
“That’s my pitcher and cup there,” Gleason said, looking at one of Forthofer’s oil paintings near the front entrance. “I still have them, if she needs to do another one.”
Forthofer started in water colors but moved to oils with the help of an instructor in Sikeston, Cleda Curtis-Neal. “That’s where I really learned a lot — in Missouri,” Sharon said. She also learned plein air painting from Billy O’Donnell.
Forthofer and Schwaninger attended workshops together, and Forthofer became absorbed in painting, even taking a three-week sojourn to paint in the Tuscany region of Italy.
In trips to see her son’s family, Forthofer enjoyed visiting the Merrill-Jennings Gallery, and one day she offered to show the owners some paintings she was carrying in her car’s trunk.
It led to their being displayed at the gallery. Since April, Kate Merrill said, the gallery has sold 25 to 30 of Forthofer’s pieces, leading to the idea for this one-woman show.
Forthofer’s devotion to realism plays out in flowers, fruits, vegetables, ships, table settings, landscapes and even Mason jars.
At least 60 pieces are on display for her gallery show.
Comer and Schuchart are artists themselves and own the Front Street Studio and Gallery back in Sikeston. Comer suggested that Forthofer may want to display some of her pieces in the Sikeston gallery — an excuse, maybe, for seeing her friends again.
After Saturday’s reception, the women from Missouri put Sharon in their car and drove her back to Salisbury, where they dined at a Mexican restaurant and visited her studio on Lee Street. They stayed overnight in Salisbury and spent more time with Forthofer before leaving Sunday afternoon.
It’s a real buddy story.
“I’ve been wanting to see you guys for so long,” Forthofer told the girls.
Forthofer is the featured artist for October at the Merrill-Jennings Gallery, 463 S. Main St., Davidson. The gallery is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Forthofer’s website is
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or